Movies: Gainsbourg * *
(15A, limited release)
Serge Gainsbourg was such a mercurial, brilliant, complex and contradictory human being that the possibilities in terms of a biopic are almost overwhelming.
That's certainly what seems to have happened to Joann Sfar, the French cartoonist and graphic artist who wrote and directed this ambitious and daring but deeply flawed film.
Sfar, who is also of French Jewish extraction, is clearly a great admirer of Gainsbourg, and his film is based on an earlier graphic novel. That is part of the problem, because although Sfar introduces some inventive touches to his debut feature film, in the end Gainsbourg seems more about how Sfar imagines the singer than who he really was.
It all starts promisingly enough. The future superstar was born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian Jewish parents in Paris in 1928, and in the early segments of Gainsbourg we see the small boy sulkily rebel against his father's piano lessons and cope with the arrival in Paris of Hitler's armies.
Gainsbourg was forced to wear the yellow star along with the rest of France's Jews, and in Sfar's film he reacts to this predicament with humour, queuing up outside the Mairie to get his star before anyone else.
All the same, this stigmatisation has its impact: when Lucien is sent to the countryside to avoid the Nazi round-ups, a shuffling, balloon-headed, giant-nosed creature follows him, Sfar's cartoon manifestation of Gainsbourg's nascent self-loathing.
Lucien grew up determined to become a great painter, but his true gift was nursed at night, when he played piano in dive bars.
He began composing songs in the early 1950s, and though too shy to sing them himself, his clever, pithy compositions became hits for some pretty big names. His talents increasingly in demand, he began recording his own songs but was not prepared for the juggernaut of fame.
By the mid-60s, he was one of France's biggest stars and an unlikely ladies man, numbering Brigitte Bardot among his more prominent conquests.
Sfar devotes most time to Gainsbourg's transition from bar pianist to superstar, but even when evoking all this he shows little flair for character development. He seems more interested in playing with the giant, rakish marionette that shadows the grown-up Serge and represents his rampant ego.
But these tricks become tiresome when entirely unaccompanied by insight, and Sfar's film rushes through Gainsbourg's last years as though unwilling to dwell on the unpleasant and rarely sober caricature the great man had by then become.